As other Southern states rush to erase reminders of their rebel past after the heinous hate-fueled black church shooting in South Carolina, Georgia can wipe its sweaty brow and breathe a sigh of relief.
Georgia legislators first dealt with the state's Confederate flag issue in 2001, and settled it by nonbinding referendum in 2003.
But some paid for the sin of changing the flag in 2001. Political careers ended.
Local legislators today say it was worth the sacrifice.
As the nation again weighs what the Confederate battle flag means when it flies outside government buildings, the Ledger-Enquirer looks back at how Georgia handled that 14 years ago.
The answer is hard and head-on. It was done in a matter of days, once Gov. Roy Barnes had the coalition of business and government leaders he needed to make it happen.
Done in days
House Rep. Calvin Smyre said the Georgia General Assembly was meeting at the old state capital in Milledgeville when he got a call from the governor's office.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"We'll tell you when you get here," he was told.
A helicopter flew him from Milledgeville to the governor's mansion.
Smyre, chairman of the House Rules Committee that decides what legislation gets a vote, was crucial to what was coming.
"I landed on the lawn of the governor's mansion, went inside and there were about 25 to 30 CEOs in the room. I said, 'Governor, how y'all doing? What's going on?' He said, 'I've been talking to you about this, Mr. Chairman, and we're going to change the flag, tomorrow, in the morning.'"
Veteran Columbus legislator Tom Buck got a call from Barnes that night. Barnes told Buck, a powerful Democratic lawmaker who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, how it was going to play out.
"He said we were going to get it out of committee, onto the floor of the House for a vote and move it to the Senate in one day," Buck said. "I asked him if we had any Republicans who were going to vote with us. He said we had the votes."
In the morning, the rules committee had substitute flag legislation it quickly approved for a floor vote.
The House passed the bill on Jan. 24, 2001. The Senate approved it on Jan. 30.
It happened much as Barnes predicted in his call to Buck.
"The state business community had endorsed it for a long time," Buck said. "I made up my mind to support it because I thought it was in the best interest for the future of the state of Georgia to do what we did."
Retired Synovus Chairman Jimmy Yancey said the business community was pushing hard for the flag change.
"The business community was a big part of influencing the governor and the legislators in addressing it in a positive manner," Yancey said. "There is no doubt the business community could see if we did not address it, that it would be an impediment to growth."
Paying a price
In the Senate, Republicans made Democrats pay.
State Sen. Seth Harp of Columbus was in the Republican caucus.
"What we wanted to do is, we wanted Roy Barnes and the Democrats to pay a price, which ultimately they did," he said of the Senate vote.
Caucus leaders told their members to go home, check with their constituents, and report back on what they thought was best. But only to the caucus, no one else.
"I came home, got my ears bent by Jimmy Blanchard and Frank Brown and everybody else on how badly we needed to change the flag, and I was totally noncommittal," Harp said.
He also went to a Box Springs volunteer fire department dinner that honored two veterans, one black and one white. An old friend there told him the department could not give the black firefighter a Georgia flag: "Seth, we're giving him an American flag. It's an insult to give him the Georgia state flag."
Said Harp: "That had a real profound influence on me." Though he planned to vote for the flag change anyway, "that was the icing on the cake."
Returning to the capitol, the Republicans counted and saw they had the votes to pass the flag change. Without those votes, the Democrats would fall short.
"They couldn't get the majority," said Harp. "They had guys from south Georgia and north Georgia and other parts of the state, and there was going to be a cold day in hell before they'd ever vote to take the flag away from the state of Georgia."
Each senator had a minute to cast a vote. Within that minute, each could switch and vote the other way.
After impassioned speeches, the vote was called, and 60 seconds began to tick away. All eyes fixed on the chamber scoreboard where green lights signified "yes" votes and red lights signaled "no."
Republicans immediately voted no, lighting up the scoreboard with red.
Democratic leaders went apoplectic, Harp said. They whipped their members into voting yes regardless of their original intent. Reluctant Democrats switched red to green. With seconds left, the Republicans switched red to green, too, and the flag change passed.
"That was one of slickest bits of political politics out of my 10 years in the Senate," Harp said. "We got the satisfaction of making about 10 hardcore rebel-rousing Southern Democrats walk the plank, and it cost them, because they lost elections. They had to go home."
Some already knew they would lose the next election, said state Sen. Ed Harbison of Columbus: "There were people who voted to change it who knew that once they did that, their careers were over. That's just the truth."
Barnes signed the bill Jan. 31, 2001, and the new icon-cluttered blue flag flew over the capitol that day.
It would not fly long.
The new flag did not eliminate the Confederate emblem, but reduced it to a miniature in a band along the bottom.
Hardcore rebels weren't the only ones who disliked the pattern. Other critics said elementary school children should be able to draw their state flag. The Barnes design was just too complicated.
In the 2002 election, Republicans made the most of the flag change.
Some thought that because of the Confederate flag, Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, which was ironic.
But Barnes had made more dangerous enemies: Teachers, who always vote. Barnes pushed through an education reform package that incited a network of teacher associations. For that, he was going to pay.
"Flaggers," as capitol insiders came to call those who mobilized to defend the battle flag, also would march on the polls.
Perdue, who promised a referendum to let Georgia vote on the battle flag, won.
Though they claimed a resounding victory in Georgia's inevitable shift to a Republican majority, Republicans faced a new predicament.
No way in hell were they going to put the battle flag up for a vote, and wind up right back where they started, said Harp: The Republicans were good with their gains. The battle flag was off the table.
It would cost Republicans nothing: Flaggers may stay home, but they don't vote for Democrats.
Like flag backers in Alabama and South Carolina today, those in Georgia had not realized there was nowhere else to go, once Republicans were done with them.
Dealing with Perdue's promises, legislators found other ways to offer voters a choice.
First they adopted a new flag based on the state's banner prior to 1956. Its pattern nearly mirrored the first Confederate national flag known as the "Stars and Bars." The only difference was in the blue union in the upper left corner, where Georgia's coat of arms and the slogan "In God We Trust" replaced the stars that represented Confederate states.
Perdue signed legislation adopting the new flag on May 8, 2003.
Along with the new flag, state leaders offered voters a nonbinding referendum. On March 2, 2004, residents could vote whether they liked the new flag or would rather revert to the Barnes flag. The 1956 Georgia flag was not an option.
Georgians voted for the new flag that still flies today.
Was it worth it?
Today, local leaders say changing the flag was worth the sacrifices.
"I thought it was worth it when we did it," said Harp. "I was glad to do it, because I thought of that man in Box Springs."
Said Yancey: "I am glad we dealt with it in a more rational atmosphere than the one today created by the great tragedy that happened in Charleston. It was clearly an emotional debate, but it was held under different circumstances. The time and place in which we did it gave us the opportunity to do it with thoughtful ideas about how we wanted the state to go forward. ... I applaud Gov. Barnes and the folks who made it happen."
Said Smyre: "I'm glad it's something we addressed and took the heat for. ... I think biting the political bullet, standing up to the wind of change, to me helped Georgia get to this next stage. I think we did the right thing, at the right time, and at the right place. ... We avoided in Georgia what other states have not avoided."
Sanford Bishop had long left the Georgia General Assembly for the U.S. House of Representatives by the time Barnes was successful in changing the flag. Bishop, the descendant of slaves, praised the political and moral courage Barnes showed.
"That came with a great price for Gov. Barnes," Bishop said. "It showed a significant amount of fortitude. But he was in a situation where he was damned if he did and he would have still had his critics if he didn't."
But he was successful, Bishop said.
"He was able to put an emblem of our divisive past behind us. And I know the chambers of commerce and the tourism bureaus appreciated it very much."
Buck, now a Columbus city councilor, agrees, and believes history bears that out.
"Looking back," Buck said, "it was in the best interest of the state for that flag to be changed."
Harp said the ill will his flag vote aroused followed him for the 10 years he served in the Senate: The flaggers never let him forget, he said.
During redistricting, his district was stretched to include Barnesville, where a man chewed Harp out for his treachery to the South.
"This brought out my Irish," Harp recalled. "I looked him in the eye, and I pointed to the West and said, 'You're absolutely right I voted for that flag. And if you don't like it, Alabama's right over there. You just get out of Georgia and head right over there to Alabama, or you get out here and beat me in this election, because I don't think you're going to beat me.'"
Bishop said the Confederate emblem sparks deep personal feelings on both sides.
"To me, it is a reminder of the Confederacy, slavery and the horrific time that my ancestors went through," Bishop said.
More than a decade ago, Bishop was invited to speak to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Atlanta.
"When I talked with them, I told them I appreciated the history and I, too, was a son of the South," Bishop said. "I, too, celebrate my history. We have a common history -- just a different perspective."
The swing in positions by Republican lawmakers across the South is practical, he said.
"At this point, they are being pushed to do so by the people they represent," Bishop said. "A young man took that symbol to heart and turned it violent in a way that people who appreciated that symbol were ashamed."
Other states can learn from Georgia's example, said Harbison:
"There's a collective kind of feeling about wanting to stay away from those kind of issues that are very divisive and painful like that. But sometimes you have such an outrageous act, such as that occurred in South Carolina, that it forces people to come to the table of reason, and force through something that deals with it directly."
-- Staff writer Chuck Williams contributed to this report.